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Holiday meal honors longtime volunteer

The dining hall and kitchen at Cloquet's Zion Lutheran Church were filled with the Christmas spirit Sunday, as volunteers and community members came together to celebrate.

Joanne Lehrke was dressed for the occasion, wearing an elf hat to top off her red and green Christmas sweater as she enjoyed some antipasti with Mae Line and Lillian Abrahamson, in advance of the ham dinner.

Abrahamson couldn't believe how much food was on offer.

"This is the Italian way," said Rosa Johnson, whose husband, the late David Johnson, spearheaded the event for close to 27 years.

Years ago, David brought his love of Italy (and his Italian wife) to the traditional American meal, she said, by making antipasti part of the meal, along with the more traditional ham, mashed potatoes, green beans, meatballs, rolls, and pie.

"He would get here at 4 a.m. every Christmas to start the ovens," Rosa said. "But he loved that. He was a missionary for the

community."

Wearing his Finnish reindeer herder hat, Ray Hatinen recalled the early committee meetings with Dave Johnson and others, 29 years ago.

"Our big debate was, will anyone come on Christmas day," he said, adding that he and Dave also were avid Boy Scouts together in their youth. "They did, and it just kept growing after that."

Eventually it got so big the meal became its own organization, although the church still played a major role. Many individuals and businesses donated money, food and time to help make it happen, but Dave Johnson was always there, pulling the strings, asking for donations, making a list and checking it twice.

There is still a Johnson family member doing that, but now it's Dave and Rosa's son, Raffy, and his comrades in the Carlton County Disabled American Veterans who plan and cook the Christmas meal.

The DAV - with Raffy as point person - took over planning the meal in 2021 when the church hall was closed because of Covid-19, since many of them had been volunteering for years. That year they ran it out of the Cloquet VFW. This year, they came back to Zion for a sit-down meal, with select deliveries.

"I thought it went well. The volunteers are always a little light on Christmas, but we had enough to get 'er done," Raffy said. "Next year we'll work on getting enough volunteers for curbside."

Raffy estimated they served about 300 people at Zion on Sunday, including dine-in and carryout guests, plus another 100 deliveries to Cloquet's Aspen Arms and Larson Commons.

Like the Johnson family, many of the guests and volunteers have made the community meal part of their annual tradition. Diandra Schroeder and her daughter Calianah, 12, have been volunteering since Calianah was little. Calianah said she likes helping others.

"It's important to help your community," Diandra said. "Plus, we have a good group of people here. They're very welcoming and giving."

Scott and Tammy Nephew stepped up, so did Cheryl Witeli. Joe Scott made the trek from Superior to volunteer again, so did his niece and her daughter. Scott and Larry Weber were cutting and counting slices of apple pie, as others bustled around, setting tables and laying out hors d'oeuvres.

In the kitchen, Cloquet "lunch lady" Ronnie Yellin and George Wilton kept the mashed potatoes and gravy coming to the service line, Wilton wearing a Santa hat over his long red hair and beard, his ready smile at odds with his "Bah Humbug" T-shirt.

Wearing a Christmas tie, Terry Scott said it was only his second year to volunteer. He was everywhere, filling in where needed.

"These guys are lifers," he said of Raffy, Gary Dahl and Gary Tyman behind the serving line. "I'm just an apprentice."

The atmosphere was relaxed, cheerful and warm, a welcome respite from a very cold day outside. Lehrke said she really likes coming to the annual Christmas meal, because she doesn't have immediate family in the area.

"It's nice to come out and be around people and out of the house, not stuck inside all day," she said, before continuing her chat with Abrahamson and Line.

 
 
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